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Morale-Building Leadership

Five essential habits for police supervisors



Mike Wasilewski & Althea Olson | Friday, April 29, 2011

Those of you who have answered the call of becoming a leader of our fine men and women, you have our utmost respect. It’s challenging to lead law enforcement officers.

As a police supervisor, the wide cross-section of the varied personalities who make up today’s cops are likely to be your charges. They’re the eager rookies, anxious to see it all, ready to jump into anything and hungry for experience and knowledge. They’re the hard chargers, kicking over rocks, making cases and building careers, and seeing every day as another chance to be the good guys. And they are the seasoned vets who move with more caution, who perhaps can be a bit surly, argumentative, cynical or jaded at times, who have no fear of letting you know “how things ought to be done” whether you asked or not, and may even be card carrying members of the “KMA Club.” Being a supervisor of this bunch can be fulfilling and trying all at once.

Being a police supervisor comes with great responsibility and great challenges. One of the challenges many bosses face is low morale. The causes of low morale are many -- ask your squad what gets them down and they will probably recite a comprehensive list of gripes -- and there’s sometimes little you can do to eliminate them from your world. What you can do is mitigate their harm, stand up for your officers, build morale within your specific sphere of influence and avoid the mistakes so many leaders make that exacerbate the morale busters.

All bosses make mistakes, and it’s easy to get into bad habits. Fortunately, it’s just as easy to get into good habits. In last month’s column, The Power of Praise, we discussed the importance of giving recognition and how it can improve morale and performance. Continuing in that vein, here we’ve compiled five habits bosses can foster that will further build morale and productivity. Much of what follows are a synopsis of research we’ve done in preparation for our training on Police Morale for Supervisors: It is Your Problem and what we’ve received in feedback from the class participants, and more yet comes from readers and very informal polls we’ve conducted through social media. We cannot include every comment about what bosses do wrong and what they can do better -- and there have been a lot of comments! -- but we’ve tried to create some very general, but comprehensive, categories to follow. When we have included a particularly good quote from one of our commenters, we have credited them by first name and last initial.

Put Energy into Building Relationships
Relationships are critical! This doesn’t mean you have to be best friends with all of your subordinates or dismiss command structure in favor of some hyper-democratic, kum bah ya circle, decision process. It does mean you should probably keep sight of the fact your decisions and leadership have tremendous impact on people, and having actual relationships with those people will inform your decisions and leadership. Taking the time to build relationships allows you to know your people as individuals and lead accordingly.
One of the best quotes about mistakes bosses make from our informal poll, “Managing instead of leading. You manage things. You lead people.” Leadership is an art rather than a science. Cookie cutter leadership doesn’t work, at least not optimally. If you want to get the most out of each individual you lead, then lead the individual.

Be More a Coach than a Disciplinarian
Of course, you need to instill discipline. We get that and so do your officers. But too many bosses see discipline as something to be imposed only in response to screwing up or to prevent screwing up at all cost. As a result, these bosses are often seen as either stern disciplinarians who pop up and lower the boom for any policy infraction, real or perceived (or, conversely, are not seen at all if everything is going well), or as high-strung micromanagers. One of the most common complaints we hear, over and over, is a variation of how many bosses are very quick to point out mistakes and failures, yet fail to notice or praise achievement.

Notice discipline, as a word, is rooted in the verb to disciple. Rather than being rooted in punishment, it’s rooted in leading and developing followers (disciples) to carry on the work of their leader. In modern parlance, see instilling discipline and leadership as resulting from coaching. It’s a leader’s responsibility to model adherence to and practice of policy and procedure (and trust us, failure to practice what you preach is a monster morale crusher!) and to clearly define expectations and then hold all members of her team to them.

But it’s also a leader’s responsibility to impart accumulated knowledge to subordinates, learn their skills and foster their professional development. In other words … be a coach!

Protect Your People
A question in the mind of every cop is, “Does the boss have my back? Can I trust him to be the champion of my split second, shoot-don’t-shoot decision when as it’s dissected by the Monday-morning quarterbacks? Or will I be thrown to the wolves in the name of political expediency, no matter how right I was or what I knew in the moment?”

Will you stand up for your people, in the big things and small, when standing up is the right thing to do, even at your own political and professional peril?

That’s a pretty big question, isn’t it? The answer is vitally important.


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Mike Wasilewski & Althea OlsonMike Wasilewski, MSW, and Althea Olson, LCSW, who have been married since 1994, provide distinctive training programs for police officers and therapists.


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